Republican White House hopefuls see CPAC as springboard to credibility

Republican presidential hopefuls have a decidedly mixed history at the Conservative Political Action Conference — the annual event has been a springboard to better things for some, while badly damaging others' aspirations and reputations.  

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This year's event is likely to carry on that tradition. 

The American Conservative Union’s annual confab, set for March 14-16, comes just as movement activists have begun looking for a path back from the presidential wilderness. 

And when an expected 8,000 activists gather near Washington, D.C., they'll be evaluating a number of potential candidates aiming to prove they're the ones with the best map.

“It’s very much the crossroads of the modern Republican Party and the modern conservative movement,” said Americans for Tax Reform President and ACU board member Grover Norquist.  

“Those who are coming are the ones who think they have the Reagan message.”

Most of the Republican Party's brightest stars will take the stage, and many have something to prove. 

Featured speakers include Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R).

Although the conference has a mixed record of picking future presidential nominee in its straw poll — past winners include Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Ron Paul (twice)  — the last few years have proven the event can mark a pivotal point in politicians’ careers. 

Rubio's strong 2010 speech, as a Senate candidate, wowed activists and reporters and cemented his status as a rising star in the conservative movement. 

On the other hand, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's (R) tin-eared declaration that he was "severely conservative" at CPAC 2012 led to derision from all sides.
 

“Presidential candidates who aspire to win conservative support must eventually pass the audition with its attendees,” Ralph Reed, another influential conservative, told The Hill.

Bush, Paul and Jindal may have the most to gain or lose: The three are less defined than Walker, Ryan and Rubio, and how they do could have a bigger impact on their future aspirations. Here’s what each needs to accomplish.

Rand Paul: Build on the filibuster moment

Paul is coming off a great week — he got raves for his filibuster against President Obama’s pick for CIA director, and many in the GOP flocked to his cause.

The big question at CPAC is whether he can keep the momentum going and convince mainstream conservatives that he’s more palatable on foreign policy than his dad, while firing up the libertarian and Tea Party activists who tend to dominate CPAC’s audience.

“Rand is not his father. He continues to differentiate himself. He’s a very smart guy. He understands his strengths and weaknesses, and is going to use every opportunity to cement Tea Party support but also go after establishment conservatives across the party,” said Citizens United President David Bossie. 

“These are the types of speeches he can give, especially on the heels of the popular filibuster, that could open people’s eyes to him that weren’t open to his father.”

Jeb Bush: Bounce back and set himself apart from his brother

While Paul soared in the week before CPAC, Bush struggled. 

His highly publicized stumble over whether he supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants foiled his carefully planned reintroduction to Washington’s opinion-makers. It became a major distraction during his media blitz on immigration policy.

Things don’t get easier this week: Bush, who left office in Florida six years ago, will likely face a tough crowd unfamiliar with his record. 

Neither his father nor his brother were popular with the CPAC audience. President George H.W. Bush (R) was viewed with distrust by both social and fiscal conservatives, and President George W. Bush (R) didn’t come to the event as president until his final year in office.

Jeb Bush is also viewed as more of an establishment Republican. Past comments attacking some conservatives and expressing an openness to raising some taxes as part of a grand bargain on deficit reduction could hurt him as well.

“Jeb needs to show that he’s his own person, not to be judged by his father or brother’s failures or successes,” said Norquist. “I’m hoping he can make it clear, however awkwardly he’s spoken about it in the past, that he’s not a tax-raising Republican like his dad was. That would be helpful.”

That may be easier said than done.

“I don’t believe he’s able to win the Republican nomination at this time. The conservative movement has had its belly full of the Bush family. That’s no fault of his. That’s not an indictment of him, but that’s a fact-check of his last name,” said Bossie. “I don’t know that he can appeal to the grassroots, he is an establishment, moderate Republican.”

Bobby Jindal: Show he’s a contender

Jindal is well-respected by the conservatives who know his record as governor —but so far he’s failed to impress the grassroots with his speaking ability. The Louisiana governor fumbled his first big introduction to the American people with a widely panned state of the union response in 2009, and since then has had a much lower profile.

While Jindal gave a well-received speech to the Republican National Convention earlier this year, CPAC will have many more activists — and journalists — to impress.

“Jindal can demonstrate that he can occupy the national stage,” said Reed.

“Jindal is a great conservative governor of Louisiana, and this is a good opportunity for him to really launch his operation and be seen in the conservative movement the way he wants to be seen,” said Bossie.

The rest: Stand out, don’t screw up

Walker, Ryan and Rubio are all much better-known to the conservative audience, and are unlikely to be defined by one speech.

But all could help themselves some. 

Rubio is a clear favorite of the movement, but could use the event to help sell his immigration views and remind the activists who helped vault him to prominence why they love him. 

Ryan needs to get some space from his 2012 loss on the Romney ticket and show his “inner happy warrior,” in Reed’s words. 

Walker, a hero to the movement, needs to “show his Wisconsin nice is an appealing skin over inner toughness and conservative convictions,” Reed says.

All have plenty to gain — but missteps could hurt.

“CPAC historically has always been very important to all those that want to run for president on the Republican side,” said Bossie. 

“It has the potential to really help. It also has the potential to really hurt, if you give a bad speech. I’d venture to say one of our speakers this month will be our nominee in 2016.”